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History of Biotechnology

Today, pioneers of biotechnology are discovering new solutions for better feed, food and consumer products. They are building on the knowledge we gained through the scientific innovations of earlier pioneers such as the Egyptians, Christopher Columbus, Louis Pasteur, Gregor Mendel, James Watson and Francis Crick, and Herbert Boyer. See how past discoveries have enhanced quality of life.

For additional information about the progression of food biotechnology from the earliest domestication of crops and animals to modern, efficient methods of selecting and producing plants and animals with the most desirable qualities, view the Food Biotechnology Timeline from the International Food Information Council.

Expanding on their understanding of scientific processes, ancient Egyptians innovated with their use of advanced fermentation and breeding practices. Did you know?

  • The ancient Egyptians made wine using fermentation techniques based on an understanding of the microbiological processes that occur in the absence of oxygen.
  • Egyptians also applied fermentation technologies to make dough rise during breadmaking. Due in part to this application, there were more than 50 varieties of bread in Egypt more than 4,000 years ago.
  • In wetter parts of the Nile Valley, Egyptians also bred geese and cattle to meet their society's nutritional and dietary needs.

Beginning with his first visit to the Americas in 1492, Christopher Columbus and other explorers introduced corn, native to the Americas, to the rest of the world, and European growers adapted the plant to their unique growing conditions. Spanish navigators also returned with potatoes, which are native to the Andes in South America. Two centuries after their European introduction, potatoes were a staple in Ireland, Germany and other European countries.

In 1864, French chemist Louis Pasteur developed the process named after him and known today as pasteurization, which uses heat to destroy harmful microorganisms in products. The products are then sealed airtight for safety. Pasteur's scientific breakthrough enhanced quality of life, allowing products such as milk to be transported without spoiling.

In the mid-1800s, Austrian monk, botanist and plant scientist Gregor Mendel carefully studied the principle of heredity. Experimenting with garden peas, Mendel successfully cross-bred traits, such as pea color, plant height and pod size. Mendel showed that differences, such as a plant's height or color, could be attributed to the passing of traits and genes — the basic building blocks of life.

Many people never knew of Mendel's innovations until after his death. When elected abbot of his monastery, Mendel's focus shifted from science to administrative duties. Many never knew of Mendel's scientific discovery until Europeans re-discovered his research and findings on their own decades later in 1900.

In the early 20th century, agricultural expert Henry Wallace applied the principles of hybridization to develop new, higher-yielding seeds. Wallace went on to apply his scientific innovation to a business model as one of the early leaders of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., today a DuPont business. A precursor to more advanced cross-breeding and eventually biotechnology, hybridization is the process of crossing plant varieties to produce crops with more favorable traits — or combining genes from two or more varieties of a plant species to produce improved seed. For example, a breeder might eliminate a plant's thorns by cross-breeding with a thornless variety. The often imprecise process of traditional plant breeding takes years to control for desired traits.

People didn't know where genes lived until DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, was "discovered" or understood in the early 1950s. British scientist Rosalind Franklin's DNA research formed the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick's 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, the ladder-like double helix. Watson and Crick perfected the DNA structural model that Franklin explored earlier.

Understanding DNA was essential to the exploration of biotechnology. Cells are the basic unit of living matter in all organisms, and DNA carries the information determining what traits a cell will have. With biotechnology, scientists could express favorable traits by lending DNA from one organism to another. From the beginning, scientists saw the potential for new drugs designed to help the body do what it couldn't do on its own, or crops able to protect themselves from disease. For example, through biotechnology-developed built-in protection, researchers have developed corn plants resistant to rootworm, beetle-like pests that, in early larval stages, feed on the plant's roots. Every year, corn rootworm costs around $1 billion to farmers.

In 1973, researchers Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer were the first to apply this technique. Working to help people living with diabetes, they lifted genetic materials from one organism's DNA and copy them into another's. It's the story of insulin.

The Story of Insulin & Biotechnology.The human body produces insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce insulin or cannot produce enough insulin. People with diabetes often need injections of insulin, which doctors first provided patients through supplies taken from pigs and cows.

However, scientists did not know the long-term effects of having animal insulin in your body. In 1978, Boyer was able to take pieces of human DNA and isolate a gene for insulin using biotechnology. He then inserted it into bacteria, which allowed the gene to reproduce a larger quantity of insulin for diabetics. This scientific advancement vastly improved quality of life for many people living with diabetes and guaranteed their safety.

Biotechnology continues to develop. In the 1980s, testing of biotechnology-derived foods began, and after its FDA approval in 1994, the FlavrSavr® tomato gave consumers a more flavorful tomato that stays fresh longer. Soon after that, new soybean and corn crop varieties that protect themselves were introduced. Three years after the FlavrSavr tomato's introduction, 18 biotechnology-derived crops were approved by the U.S. government, and research and development continues to improve agricultural productivity and enhance foods' nutritional value.

DuPont scientists are developing plants that have the genetic potential to produce more grain or better oils. In addition, they are developing new seed products with resistance to pests, diseases and other crop production challenges. Visit the Product Traits and Technologies page for more details on all of these, including Optimum® AcreMax®, Plenish™, and more.